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'Crack baby' fears of the 1980s re-examined in new Retro Report

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Tom Brokaw, the longtime anchor of NBC Nightly news, reports on a study that caused much alarm about women who used cocaine while pregnant. (NBC/Retro Report)

A fledgling website dedicated to revisiting high-profile news stories of the past has released a new video about the so-called crack baby scare of the 1980s - an "epidemic" of addicted mothers giving birth to children that were expected to be costly, disruptive and damaged for life.

Retro Report, a non-profit documentary news organization working in collaboration with the New York Times, argues that the "worrisome extrapolations made by researchers" were, in retrospect, rather overblown and even misleading.

One major problem, the organization notes, is that the original study involved just 23 infants and was too myopic in its focus on the babies' exposure to a single substance.

"In the 1980s, the media sounded the alarm that a new drug -- crack cocaine -- was taking over American cities, and that it had an especially devastating effect on pregnant women and their newborns," begins narrator Zachary Green.

A younger Rep. George Miller -- who is still a member of the U.S. House of Representatives -- describes the affected infants as the "most expensive babies ever born in America," predicting that they would go on to overwhelm every social service they ever come into contact with.

The babies grow up

In retrospect, the picture looks rather different. The reporters reveal that many of the widely-publicized symptoms attributed to so-called cocaine babies may have had more to do with other factors, like prematurity, and may not have been properly put in context.

Poverty, maternal health, and substance abuse more generally were not the focal points.

In the roughly ten minute segment, filmmakers speak to both the doctor who spearheaded the original study, Dr. Ira Chasnoff, as well as a former crack exposure research subject.

Chasnoff admits he felt the story spun out of his control, and later became alarmed to see pregnant cocaine users being charged and jailed.

And Devin Stone, a research subject who went on to become the first in her family to graduate from college, argues that her story at least complicates the notion that "crack babies" are doomed.

"In learning that I had been exposed, I told myself that I'm not going to make this an issue," said Stone. "Whatever I have to do to get around what the effects may be - I'll do that."

The paper was preliminary and shouldn't have been generalized to the extent that it was, adds Dr. Claire Coles, the director of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Drug Exposure Center at Marcus Autism Center. Coles added that there has not been much evidence of the severe, broad-scale developmental and social problems that were predicted.

The second draft of history

Retro Report's official slogan is "the truth now about stories then." The organization's mission is to follow up on issues that dominated the headlines in their day, but then disappeared without much follow-up over the years.

"How often do journalists tell us of a looming danger or important discovery - only to move quickly to the next new thing?" the authors posit in their mission statement. "What really happened?"

The site launched in 2013, and is targeted toward Baby Boomers and Gen Xers old enough to remember stories that made a splash in decades past.

Unlike archival sites that re-post but do not necessarily review old issues, the media professionals behind Retro Report seek to apply today's insight to yesterday's events - or in their words "pick up the story after everyone has moved on."

"[T]he first draft of history can be wrong. When news organizations fail to invest the time and money required to correct the record or provide context around what really happened, myth can replace truth," states the organization, which was born of a private grant from entrepreneur and philanthropist Christopher Buck.

Retro Report has pledged not to charge for access to their coverage.

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